AUBURN, Ala. — Kris Frost wants to see the linebackers take top billing on Auburn’s defense.
Not that he’s an unbiased source — he does play middle linebacker, after all. But the ongoing struggles of the linebacker corps has been a point of emphasis nearly every week. Of the Tigers’ top 10 tacklers through five games, only three are linebackers — four, if you count Robenson Therezie, who plays at Star, the team’s hybrid safety-linebacker position.
Unhappy with his unit’s lack of production, Frost made it a point to stress that it can’t continue.
“We have to step up,” he said. “A lot of the guys on the team feel that way about all the positions. Linebackers especially — we have to command the defense. Middle linebacker, even more. We have to make sure everyone is lined up right, make sure we're lined up right and get the calls and execute them well.”
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The leading tackler amongst Auburn’s linebackers is Cassanova McKinzy, whose 23 takedowns are third-most on the team. The other two linebackers in the top 10 both play in the middle in Jake Holland (19, eighth on team) and Frost (17 tackles, 10th on team).
The Tigers’ issues aren’t representative of Southeastern Conference linebackers as a whole.
Five teams — Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State — rank in the top half of the league in both total defense and scoring defense. All of those teams with the exception of LSU have at least four linebackers among their top 10 leading tacklers, including ties. Like Auburn, LSU has just three linebackers in the top 10; what separates them, however, is that the Bayou Bengals’ trio (Lamin Barrow, D.J. Welter and Kwon Alexander) rank first, second and fourth, respectively in takedowns on the team.
Individually, it’s the same story: Seven of the top 10 in tacklers in the SEC are linebackers, topped by Georgia’s Ramik Wilson (52 tackles), one ahead of Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson’s 51.
So why has Auburn not been able to find the success the rest of the conference seems to be come by so easily?
Frost said there was no easy answer, and denied that it had anything to do with breakdowns in communication.
“(It’s) just trying to make sure you have all your fits right and everything,” the sophomore said of Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme. “It gets complicated from time to time — especially when different teams are doing different things to you. You play a different team with a different scheme every week. It's all about us settling in to the defense and adjusting to it.”
One positive Frost found was that as the weeks have passed, the Tigers have continued to grow more and more comfortable with the system.
“Base defense is what we've done the most, so it's what we're most familiar with also,” he said. “And a lot of stuff that's new to us is really just getting reps at it in practice and really working hard polishing up everything on our assignments and our fits with everything.”
Anthony Swain had no problem doing that in last week’s victory. After McKinzy left the game at the end of the first quarter with a neck injury, the Gadsden, Ala., native played the majority of the final three periods, collecting eight tackles.
Johnson couldn't say enough about the career-best performance for the sophomore , especially given the circumstances. Swain had been moved back and forth between middle and weakside linebacker this season, having little time to settle in at either spot.
“I just really thought he played outstanding for the number of reps he's had a game and playing two different positions over the previous two to three weeks,” Johnson said. “I'm real proud of the way he handled it. He even practiced a little bit at Mike this past week. Kris' shoulder is a little bit sore, so I told him to get some of Kris' reps one day.”
And if Swain can play like that, why should it be any different for the rest of Auburn’s linebackers? Frost couldn’t find a reason to the contrary. He took comfort in the fact that the Tigers have seen every type of offense — pass-heavy, run-oriented and balanced — a team can face over the course of a season.
Though always easier said than done, Frost said he and his fellow linebackers have to cut out the miscues they have made up to this point.
“Every week, we've seen improvement in our play and been able to just go out and play hard,” he said. “We know as the weeks go on and the days go on, we're focusing on getting better.”